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Baptized into Light
March 30, 2014
Introduction before reading scripture
Our Gospel reading for this fourth Sunday in Lent takes in the entire 9th chapter of John. It’s the story of the man born blind. Jesus restores his sight by having him wash in the pool of Siloam. The rest of the story illustrates the confusion, fear and rejection that his healing sets in motion. This episode is one of the most intriguing in the New Testament. It reads like a well-crafted play, unfolding in seven scenes. So I encourage you to read the entire episode when you go home today. But this morning we’re going to narrow the focus. John often weaves a theme within a theme. And in the story of the man born blind, the first 11 verses of this extended narrative are imbued with baptismal symbolism. It is to this baptismal theme that we turn our attention this morning.
It’s always a joyful, tender moment in the worship life of a congregation when we celebrate the sacrament of baptism. We saw a very cute baby garbed in a gown made by her grandmother. We saw smiling parents and proud grandparents. We saw a pastor hoping not to jostle the child. But is this all that we saw? Was our vision limited to outward appearances, our seeing attending only to the surface of things? Such a superficial way of seeing obscures the deeper reality that our sacrament proclaims. To look further, let’s turn to John’s story of the man born blind. This Gospel story will enable us to see baptism in a clearer light.
The story begins with a simple observation: “As Jesus passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth.” Jesus’ disciples also see the man, but they don’t see him the way Jesus does. “Rabbi,” they inquire, “who sinned, the man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The disciples were giving voice to the commonly held assumption that if a person was suffering from some misfortune, it was because that person was being punished for some wrongdoing. Since this man was blind from birth, the disciples conjectured that perhaps the man’s blindness was his parents’ fault. The disciples would have in mind the Old Testament verse about the sins of the fathers being visited upon their children, even to the third and fourth generation. Obviously, then, the disciples see the man’s blindness as punishment by God for some sin.
But Jesus doesn’t see it that way. In his view, especially as we find it expressed in John’s Gospel, sin is not what you do, not what someone else does, but rather it is blindness to God’s presence. Sin is the inability or unwillingness to see that God’s loves us, all of us. In the episode we’re considering, it’s the Pharisees who are called blind, because they cannot see or accept God’s love in the person and work of Christ. In other words, in John’s Gospel, sin is not so much an ethical term as a relational one. Sin, as Paul Tillich famously declared, is separation. It is our human blindness that results in an inability to see ourselves and others as God’s beloved children.
In a poem titled Central Park, American’s poet laureate Billy Collins writes about observing a carousel in Central Park. As the carousel turns, he reads a marker beside the Carousel explaining how it was first designed to be powered by a blind mule. The poor creature was strapped to the oar of a wheel in an earthen room directly below the merry turning of the carousel. Collins writes “I must have looked terrible as I stood there filling with sympathy not so much for the harnessed beast tediously making its rounds, but instead for the blind mule within me always circling in the dark…” Collins concludes the poem with this line:
Poor blind beast, I sang softly as I left the park,
Poor blind me, poor blind earth turning blindly on its side.
Writing centuries before Collins, St. Augustine said of the blind man in our Gospel story: “The blind man stands for the human race.”
So Jesus, our story continues, takes the blind man aside and packs his unseeing eyes with mud, clay and spittle. This symbolic gesture evokes images of creation. God, you remember, fashioned his human creatures from the earth. Such is the stuff of unseeing life. We are born with an animal-like nature that is acquisitive, brutal, imbued with a survival instinct and power-driven, one that is blind to the needs of our neighbor and to the love that God has for the world. “Poor blind beast,” cries the poet, “poor blind me, poor blind earth turning blindly on its side.”
But Jesus came into the world to open blind eyes. Accordingly, he instructs the man in our story to go and wash in the pool of Siloam, which, John is careful to add, means “one who has been sent.” Such a phrase identifies the water with Jesus, because in John Jesus is the one who was sent by the Father. So the blind man, the symbolism makes clear, was baptized in Christ. Even though the word “baptism” doesn’t appear in this story, John and the Christians who followed him interpreted the story in light of our baptism in Christ. For example, in the early centuries of the church, the story of the man born blind was used for the Gospel reading at baptism ceremonies.
It’s also the case that when the story of the blind man appears in early catacomb art, which it does numerous times, it most frequently is used as an illustration of Christian baptism. And the early church theologian Tertullian, writing in the second century, opened his tract on Baptism with words taken from the story of the man born blind. He writes, “The present work will treat our sacrament of water which washes away the sins of our original blindness and sets us free unto eternal life.”
Friends, we all saw the baptism this morning. We saw Scarlett, saw the ritual unfold. But now the story of the man born blind has opened our eyes to see much more. Now we see a child of God freed by water and the Spirit and belonging to Jesus Christ forever. No longer belonging only to her biological family, she had been born all over again, this time into God’s Trinitarian family, and joined to Christ’s ministry of love, peace and justice. In a word, she is a whole New Creation. Don’t you see?